Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Shake Sugaree – the Music of Elizabeth Cotten

If one is inclined to read books or visit a number of websites, or even talk to a number of musicians, one might come away with the impression that traditional music is dictated by a number of very strict rules—for instance, if you’re going to play blues you need to do it in such-&-such a style on such-&-such a guitar, & you should be able to reproduce certain licks as emblematic of the style. Now, I’ve learned a fair amount from music books & websites, & a whole heckuva lot from other musicians, but I’ve come to realize that these rules only go so far. While it’s unquestionably important to study the good ones who’ve come before, at a certain point you need to dive in & play it the way you hear & “feel” it—& by “feel,” I mean emotionally, of course, but also tactilely—because the physical act of playing an instrument is a combination of hearing & touch.

The majority of us spend some time trying to figure out how to play things “the right way” before we realize that we actually have gained enough skills along the way to play the songs we love the way we hear & feel them. The results may not be as spectacular as the results of the justifiably renowned traditional musicians, but they will have that “certain je ne sais quoi” that comes from actually interacting with a piece of music.

Some musicians, however, rapidly develop a unique style, & one of these was the great folk/blues fingerstyle guitar player, Elizabeth Cotten. Ms. Cotten was left-handed, & when she was young she picked up a guitar in the way that seemed natural to her—namely, what would be considered upside-down & backwards. These days, they make left-handed guitars (tho depending on the degree of left-handedness, a number of left-handed folks also p
lay “as if” they were right-handed), Elizabeth Cotten came to the guitar after learning the banjo at age seven (she learned on her older brother’s banjo); again, she played the banjo “upside-down & backwards.”

Now a banjo has a quirk in that the string that would be typically played with t
he thumb by a right-handed person is a high-pitched drone. It’s also true that in a number of old-time banjo styles the thumb plays a good deal of the melody. So in that sense, Elizabeth’s approach to the banjo was slightly less novel. But when she started to play the guitar, she came up with the odd technique of playing the bass strings with her index finger & the treble strings with her thumb—exactly the opposite of how the instrument is typically played.

Despite or because of her unusual playing technique, Elizabeth Cotten grew to be a masterful guitar player. She also was a precocious composer—Cotten wrote her best-known song, “Freight Train,” as a young teenager, not long after she’d scraped together enough money to buy a Stella guitar (an inexpensive model of the time). The song has become a real “standard” of fingerstyle guitar, & has been covered by everybody from Peter, Paul & Mary to Chet Atkins. You can hear Elizabeth Cotten playing & singing the song in the first video clip below.

Cotten made h
er living mostly as a maid, & apparently didn’t pursue music in any “serious” way. In fact, by the time she moved to the Washington, D.C. area she’d mostly put the guitar aside, except for playing occasionally at church.

Cotten was working in a department store one day when a young girl became lost. Elizabeth Cotten helped the child, who was Penny Seeger—yes, of that Seeger family. The upshot was that Cotten became the Seeger’s maid, & at a certain point young Mike Seeger discovered that Elizabeth Cotten could not only play the guitar but could really play the guitar. He began taping her performances on reel-to-reel tapes, & these were later issued by Folkways Records.

Elizabeth Cotten, now in her 60s, became a fixture at folk festivals from the 1960s almost until her death at age 92 in 1987—in fact, she won a Grammy Award for best traditional album in 1985 (for her Live! on Arhoolie). She continued to write songs, too: her wonderful song “Shake Sugaree” was written in the 1960s, & was recorded with Elizabeth playing guitar & her 14-year-old granddaughter, Brenda Evans, singing. You can hear this lovely tune in the second video clip below.

Elizabeth Cotten was a true musical wonder. Her guitar playing was impeccable. Tho her voice had lost something to age by the time Seeger began recording her, her instrumental technique remained formidable. As evidence: check out her version of the classic fingerstyle piece “Vestapol” in the final clip.

So next time someone says, “You can’t do it that way,” think of Elizabeth Cotten!

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  1. Fantastic. Thanks so much for the piece on the great Elizabeth Cotton, and for those endearing clips. The lady was a classic.

  2. Hi Jacqueline:

    Thanks! She was a remarkable musician, & her story is really quite remarkable too, I think. Glad you liked this!

  3. She's amazing. I love that she could play upside-down & backwards!

  4. Hi Willow:

    Amazing is a good word. So glad you enjoyed Elizabeth Cotton's music.

  5. I love these pieces John. It is like having a personal guide to take me to musical regions that are unfamiliar but that are also so rewarding to visit.

  6. Totally enjoyed this post. I listened while I caught up on some days I missed on your blog. What a talented woman Cotton was.

  7. John, what an incredible talent and story! Beautiful playing! I love Vestapol, especially.

    I couldn't help but think, though, of poetry and of all artistry as you discussed creation and imitation of the masters.

    Thought-provoking and entertaining post!

  8. Hi Alan, Heather & Karen:

    Alan: Very glad that these posts work that way for you! I'll keep 'em coming!

    Heather: That's great--am very happy you got to listen to Elizabeth Cotton.

    Karen: Yes, the principle I'm talking about certainly can be extended to other arts. In some ways, I think it's a bit gharder to see with writing/poetry, because writing has virtually no dependence on physical technique, unlike the other arts--music, obviously & dance, but painting too is dependent on learned motions, touch, etc. But it is applicable to poetry--just a bit harder to connect the dots.


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